Christchurch was rocked by the deadliest earthquake to hit New Zealand in 80 years, killing at least 65 people, toppling buildings, trapping office workers and ripping apart sidewalks and roads.
The death toll from the magnitude 6.3 earthquake, the strongest since September when the city was shaken by a 7.0 magnitude temblor, is likely to rise, New Zealand police said in a statement. The quake sent office workers in the country’s second-largest city fleeing into streets covered in shattered glass, paper, bricks and broken concrete.
“We might be witnessing New Zealand’s darkest day,” Prime Minister John Key said on Television New Zealand after traveling from the capital of Wellington to the South Island city. “It’s just a scene of utter devastation.”
The five kilometer-deep quake struck at 12:51 p.m local time during the lunchtime break, inflicting more injuries than the early morning September temblor when no one died. Today’s quake was centered 10 kilometers southeast of Christchurch, according to geonet.org.nz. A 5.5 magnitude aftershock followed shortly after the first, the U.S. Geological Survey said.
Emergency services are continuing to search the central city, particularly the high-rise buildings, New Zealand police said in the statement. About 200 extra police are being sent from around New Zealand to help the city of almost 400,000.
The quake destroyed buildings and parts of structures in the central business district of Christchurch, including part of its iconic cathedral. Two buses were crushed by falling buildings, police said. Smoke billowed on to the streets from office buildings that were reduced to rubble.
“What the picture will be like in the morning, God only knows,” Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker said in a Television New Zealand interview.
The nation’s currency, known as the kiwi, dropped for the first time in five days. New Zealand’s dollar dropped to 74.93 U.S. cents, the least since Dec. 28, before trading at 75.01 U.S. cents as of 4:52 p.m. in Sydney from 76.38 cents yesterday in New York. It fell 1.6 percent to 62.49 yen, the biggest slide since Nov. 23 and also the weakest since Dec. 28.
The prime minister called an emergency Cabinet meeting in Wellington after the quake hit, before traveling to Christchurch. New Zealand may accept offers of international help, Deputy Prime Minister Bill English told reporters.
The impact of the earthquake was capable of “condemning the New Zealand economy to another year of anemic growth due to forces beyond its control,” Katrina Ell, a Sydney-based economist at Moody’s Analytics Australia Pty Ltd. said in a report following the quake.
Christchurch’s airport is open for emergencies only, according to an e-mailed statement from the Civil Defense department. Ambulances are scarce and residents are driving into the center to help the injured, broadcaster TV3 reported.
Jetstar, the budget unit of Qantas Airways Ltd., suspended flights to Christchurch indefinitely, it said in an e-mailed statement. Auckland and Wellington flights are also affected, the carrier said. Virgin Blue Holdings Ltd., Australia’s second-biggest airline, also halted services to Christchurch.
Residents were being advised to use phones for emergency services only after Telecom Corp. of New Zealand said some of its network sites were badly damaged.
Almost every building in the city center has broken walls and collapsed roofs while a cloud of dust hangs over the city, Christchurch resident Jenny Adams told Bloomberg Television. Some office workers are pinned under desks, TV3 reported.
The offices of investment company Pyne Gould Corp Ltd., located near Christchurch’s city center, collapsed after the quake and trapped workers are still inside, according to TV3. The company’s shares slumped 8.8 percent to 31 New Zealand cents in Wellington.
Injured office workers were being treated at a temporary triage center near collapsed office buildings. Hospitals around the South Island have been cleared to take earthquake patients, John Carter, New Zealand’s minister for civil defense, told TV3. Christchurch’s major has declared a state of emergency.
“The most important point we want to address at this moment and in the next 24 hours is the safety of people,” Carter told reporters in Wellington. “That’s where our focus will be.”
Today’s quake served as a reminder of jolt in Christchurch on Sept. 4 that shook consumer confidence and contributed to a 0.2 percent drop in gross domestic product in the third quarter. The Reserve Bank of New Zealand estimates the September temblor caused NZ$5 billion ($3.78 billion) of damage.